Fanart from Instagram user @dunkart. Grazie! #tbbt

Your face is hidden and we’re out of sight
And the road just leads to nowhere
The stranger in the door is the same as before
So the question answer’s nowhere
-Depeche Mode, New Life

The above quatrain sums up the casual nihilism that so much of what we call New Wave espoused – a sort of dark, emotionless worldview marked by robotic music and vocals and, paradoxically, extravagant fashions. At its best, it was insouciant pop music as danceable as disco. At its worst, ugh, with the hair. Mad World by Jonathan Bernstein and Lori Majewski will do little to dissuade the reader of this conception, but is still as fun a night out as any coke addled evening soundtracked to a linndrum and a rattling can of aqua-net.

The authors smart conceit is to pick 30 or so songs of the era and then anthologize oral histories by the performers and, if different, the writers (Pardon my ignorance, but I have just now learned that Tainted Love is not a Soft Cell original). Obviously, a book like this invites argument (why Animotion and not Frankie Goes to Hollywood) and that’s part of the fun, but the barometer for inclusion is extremely fuzzy – It’s not just one-hit wonders, as Duran Duran and Depeche Mode are included. Nor is it just synth bands, as the relatively organic Adam and the Ants and Dexy’s Midnight Runners are to be found herein. And if its purely just a matter of including bands that are ‘influential’ well, then, the exclusion of Big Country borders on criminal negligence. Bid adieu to all the celtic punk of the 90s if we forget 4 guys who made their guitars sound like bagpipes. Also – OMD but not the Cars?

The Normal get their due – their cold hit Warm Leatherette being the Bridge between Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode, and the piece on Spandau Ballet is surprisingly fascinating. First there’s that horrible name – taken from Nazi soldiers nickname for the death spasms seen at the Spandau concentration camp – and there’s an analysis of the lyrics to True that surprised me. As corny as that song is – and it is so very, very corny – the lyrics actually speak of an inability to express ones self. It’s a very frosty, quite British subject for a fake R&B tune. When was the last time you really listened to the words:

I bought a ticket to the world
But now I’ve come back again
Why do I find it hard to write the next line?
Oh, I want the truth to be said

The book is at its most compelling talking about the British class system – most of the bands featured hail from the UK, and that’s as it should be, and the ur-story of most of them goes something like “I knew (Dave, Vince, Allison, Martin) from the council estates, and then we bought a synthesizer.” There’s an eye-opening point made by Vince Clarke in the Depeche Mode chapter that “we could never afford amps for our guitars, so we bought synths” – thus making new wave more economically feasible than punk rock. So few of these bands came from London, and so many of them came from tiny little steel towns like Sheffield or ad hoc postwar suburbs like Basildon, or in the case of Devo, dead-end rubber hamlets like Akron. This otherworldly music – and at the time, it sounded so otherworldly, so futuristic, so progressive - came from places that felt like they simply were not progressing at all.

The other side of the book, unfortunately, is an increasingly tiresome review of the fashions – Morrissey wore woman’s blouses that were easily torn! Somebody patted Mike Score on the top of his head and that’s how we got the Flock of Seagulls haircut! And Jesus, there’s some sloppy copy editing. Remember that INXS song “Never Tell Us Apart?” Well, Jonathan Bernstein sure does.

But when its about class and the actual music, it’s dynamic and intimate – and the music talk comes from surprising places. A-ha took great care to write that song (and there will be no points awarded to those who guess which song), and deliberately put the verse and chorus in two different keys to create a sense of release when needed. And that’s probably why all three of them were knighted in their native Norway. If those facts just made you raise your eyebrows, then you really can’t pick up this book soon enough.

It opens with Kings of the Wild Frontier by Adam & the Ants, whom I love, and will always love, but I question that songs inclusion. Adam’s stuff ages really well because it doesn’t sound very much like the time in which it was written. He talks about fashion, sure, guy dresses like a pirate, but the music is why I keep listening. The drums are great, especially in an era distinguished by terrible, often artificial percussion sounds. My favorite of his work is probably the title track off “Friend or Foe.” The lyrics are defiant – love me or hate me, but pick a side, and I’ll yell about it. There’s a real passion to his work that is missing from a lot of the other artists.Adam Ant will never be ripped off , because really who else would dare to mix Burundi drums, Duane Eddy guitar and big band horns?


Some ink leaked in my cargo shorts. #NYFW

Oh, look - PBS is showing YET ANOTHER Sondheim Show. Oh, look - Ima watch YET ANOTHER Sondheim show. Live from Lincoln Center: Sweeney Todd


-My amazing wife included – credit Joan Rivers as an influence and an inspiration. That’s enough for me to honor her memory.